Five articles that show the media is waking up to distress as political, not personal


Parts of the media are a mouthpiece for biomedical psychiatry’s idea that distress should be diagnosed as a disorder, then medicated, managed and eliminated. This medical model has a long-established grip on public understanding; journalists have fallen victim to it, along with everybody else. As a journalist myself, I suspect it is benign ignorance, along with a wariness of challenging so-called ‘medical expertise’, that has led editors to fall in line with psychiatric orthodoxy and deny exposure to voices who challenge it.

But that era may be ending. Recently, mainstream titles have published articles by writers who question diagnosis and medication, who insist that distress is political, and who are less interested in its symptoms than its social causes. This change is encouraging, however long overdue. 

Here are five of these recent articles: 

(A warning: some of the writers still use terms which Mad in the UK does not endorse, such as ‘anxiety disorder’.)

  1. I’m a psychologist – and I believe we’ve been told devastating lies about mental health by Dr Sanah Ahsan in The Guardian

Dr Sanah Ahsan questions the cause of the so-called ‘mental health crisis’, challenges solutions offered by medical services, and suggests more effective ways to alleviate suffering. 

‘As a clinical psychologist who has been working in NHS services for a decade, I’ve seen first hand how we are failing people by locating their problems within them as some kind of mental disorder or psychological issue, and thereby depoliticising their distress. Will six sessions of CBT, designed to target “unhelpful” thinking styles, really be effective for someone who doesn’t know how they’re going to feed their family for another week?’

2. Doctors gave her antipsychotics. She decided to live with her voices by Daniel Bergman in the New York Times 

This is an extract from Daniel Bergman’s recent book about this brother, The Mind and the Moon: My Brother’s Story, the Science of Our Brains, and the Search for Our Psyches. This section follows the story of Caroline Mazel-Carlton, who now leads Hearing Voices Network groups in the US. It also gives an account of the development of ‘antipsychotic’ drugs, and the World Health Organization’s recent rebuttal of the dominance of biomedical psychiatry.

‘Last June, the World Health Organization published a 300-page directive on the human rights of mental-health clients — and despite the mammoth bureaucracy from which it emerged, it is a revolutionary manifesto on the subject of severe psychiatric disorders. It challenges biological psychiatry’s authority, its expertise and insight about the psyche. And it calls for an end to all involuntary or coercive treatment and to the dominance of the pharmaceutical approach that is foremost in mental health care across conditions, including psychosis, bipolar disorder, depression and a host of other diagnoses. Psychiatry’s problematic drugs, the W.H.O. maintains, must no longer be an unquestioned mainstay.’

3. It’s not just you in the New York Times 

This is an excellent collection of articles deconstructing the notion of ‘mental health’ as a personal, biological matter, and insisting on its political, social and economic nature.

‘Here is the core of the problem: Medicalizing mental health doesn’t work very well if your goal is to address the underlying cause of population-level increases in mental and emotional distress. It does, however, work really well if you’re trying to come up with a solution that everybody in power can agree on, so that the people in power can show they’re doing something about the problem. Unfortunately, the solution that everyone can agree on is not going to work.’

4. Low serotonin caused your depression? This man isn’t convinced – an interview with James Davies in The Times

The author of Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created Our Mental Health Crisis explains how suffering has been turned into “a kind of vibrant market opportunity”, for the benefit of pharmaceutical companies and the wider economy, at the expense of the individual. 

“We also know from research that people who come to believe their problems are due to chemical imbalances experience worse pessimism about their recovery, increased self-stigma, and more negative expectations and self-blame, as well as more depressive symptoms after the close of their treatment, compared to people who reject this hypothesis.”

5. NHS mental health services are turning children away when they need us most by Tara Porter in The Guardian 

A psychologist working with young people and child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) describes how a system led by diagnoses leads to erratic treatment at best, instead of the long-term, stable care that suffering children deserve. 

‘We need a distress-led service, rather than a diagnosis-led service. We need services, both for mental health and in the community, which prioritise long-term care, not short-term repair, and government policy that is mindful of the mental health of the next generation. We must tackle the root of young people’s problems, not just their symptoms.’

Finally, a note for journalists and others who write: this clear guide describes language to use when covering mental health, in order to avoid enforcing the unhelpful and unscientific idea that mental and emotional distress are illnesses. 

‘We all experience anxiety, and those of us for whom it is severe enough to prompt us to seek professional help might be given a label of ‘anxiety disorder’. ‘Generalised anxiety disorder’ means that the person is anxious much of the time. It is better just to describe the person’s problems (‘extreme anxiety’ or ‘frequent panic attacks’ for example) than to use clinical sounding terms that can be misleading and that risk perpetuating the myth that a specific underlying problem has been identified which only experts can understand.’